The Health of the Humanities, Continued

November 23, 2010

In today’s Inside Higher Education, Kirstin Wilcox (a senior lecturer in English at the Univerity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) writes about the “huge disconnect” between how those in the Humanities see themselves and how others see them — others being those outside the university but also those within the university in other fields.

She is responding to an earlier piece published in IHE by Gregory Petsko (a professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis), that is an open letter to George Philip, President of SUNY-Albany, who has proposed the elimination of French, Italian, Russian and classics at the university.

Wilcox is grateful for Petsko’s support of the Humanities, but also made uncomfortable by it.  She asks:

“How many of us can meaningfully apply what we do to “the question of just what it means to be human” without cringing, or adopting an ironic pose, or immediately distancing ourselves from that very question? How many of us see our real purpose as teaching students to draw the kinds of connections between literature and life that Petsko uses to such clever effect in his diatribe?”

I’m for grounding our understanding of the Humanities in the question of “what it means to be human,” and in our doing that openly, joyfully and with our most constructively critical abilities fully deployed.  I think she’s right that we’ve grown unaccustomed to seeing (and doing, and defending) the Humanties in that manner.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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